Speech Technology Magazine

 

The Impotence of Being Earnest

Famous Last Words<@SM>Have you ever dialed a company, had your call answered and then heard something like this? <@SM><@SM>"Thank you for calling ACME Corporation. Your call is very important to us…." <@SM><@SM>How about this? <@SM><@SM>"In order to ensure the most efficient resolution to your problem, you can always visit us at our easy-to-use Web site 24 hours a day at double-u double-u double-u dot ACME dot com." …
By Walter Rolandi - Posted Jan 6, 2005
Page1 of 1
Bookmark and Share

Famous Last Words
Have you ever dialed a company, had your call answered and then heard something like this?

"Thank you for calling ACME Corporation.  Your call is very important to us…."

How about this?

"In order to ensure the most efficient resolution to your problem, you can always visit us at our easy-to-use Web site 24 hours a day at double-u double-u double-u dot ACME dot com."

Or, after a couple of consecutive speech recognition failures, how about something like this?

"I'm sorry but I seem to be having difficulty understanding what you said.  Could we try that again please?"

As if the prompt content alone were not sufficient to insult or annoy the caller, often such prompts are read with obviously empty enthusiasm or affected sincerity.   I doubt prompts like these evoke warm and fuzzy feelings for many callers.  In fact, I suspect that their immediate effect is to annoy the user and that their overall effect is to engender ill feelings toward the company whose system contains them.

What's wrong with this picture?
Collectively, prompts such as these might be called "emotive."  They might be called so because they are intended to earnestly convey some sort of emotional disposition on the part of the called company or the actual IVR application itself. 

Why do so many IVRs contain such emotive prompts?  Some of these prompts are so prevalent as to be IVR clichés.  No doubt some designers include these kinds of prompts thinking that they will in some way assist the user or improve the overall user experience.  On the other hand, some of the prompts may be present due to decisions made in the marketing or legal departments.  In any event, it is generally a bad idea for an IVR to include prompts that attempt to communicate either the emotional state of the company, the emotional state of the IVR or both.

I feel your pain
Granted, the practice is widespread, but the absurdity of the situation should be obvious if one adopts the perspective of the caller.  Callers invariably call with a "problem:" they need to do something, execute some task over the phone, find out some specific information, etc.    So, when a person calls with his single-minded purpose of say wanting to obtain a bank account balance, and he hears:

"Thank you for calling ACME Corporation.  Your call is very important to us…."

How is this person supposed to react to a statement like that?  The fact that he has been told by a machine that his call is "very important to us" actually suggests that his call is not very important.  Perhaps the caller would ponder:  "If my 'very important' call is to be answered by a machine, how important would my call then be if it were answered by a person?   Very, very important?  Extraordinarily important?   Unbelievably important?"

Again, when a person calls with his single-minded purpose of say wanting to obtain a bank account balance, and he hears:

"In order to ensure the most efficient resolution to your problem, you can always visit us at our easy-to-use Web site 24 hours a day at double-u double-u double-u dot ACME dot com."

What is the desired effect?  Granted, some companies want the caller to hang up and use their Web site for self service.  But is this the best way to inform the user?   Some how the caller has been informed that he can obtain a bank account balance by calling the number that he just called.  When he does so, he immediately hears a falsely sincere advertisement for an alternative - undoubtedly less expensive for the company - means of self-service.   The message to the caller: solving your problem quickly is less important to us than telling you about a way for you to solve your problem less expensively to us.

Sympathy for the Devil
The third emotive example is a case in itself.   While some research has shown that a conversationally appropriate apology can help get a user back on track, elaborate, artificially concerned and conversationally pretentious prompts like:

"I'm sorry but I seem to be having difficulty understanding what you said.  Could we try that again please?"

should be avoided.  Again, what is the desired effect on the caller?  He has called the system and he is attempting to perform his task.  He experiences two consecutive speech recognition errors whereupon a machine expresses its sympathy, opines its perception that things aren't going so well and asks the poor user to join it once again for yet another try.  The message to the user: I may be a machine but look who's stupid.

My advice: forget being emotive.  Forget being earnest.  Concentrate on being efficient.


Dr. Walter Rolandi is the founder and owner of The Voice Use Interface Company in Columbia, S.C. Dr. Rolandi provides consultative services in the design, development and evaluation of telephony based voice user interfaces (VUI) and evaluates ASR, TTS and conversational dialog technologies. He can be reached at wrolandi@wrolandi.com.

Page1 of 1